An interview with Erik Zabel, February 22, 2005
No edits are necessary when you transcribe a chat with Erik Zabel. Who would have guessed that one of the best sprinters in the world is also a very eloquent talker. Well, at least in German, the language Cyclingnews' Hedwig Kröner spoke with "Ete" at T-Mobile's team presentation in Bonn!
In front of a substantial media crowd, one could clearly feel that Zabel was still annoyed at the ongoing discussions of his participation in the Tour de France when he was asked for a statement about it. His team-mate and Tour podium finisher Andreas Klöden had brought about the issue in public when he told journalists at the end of last year that "in order to win the Tour de France, you need one captain and eight helpers," indirectly questioning Zabel's participation. Both Zabel and Klöden are saying they had a reconciling conversation about it, but the attending media representatives were eager to know more.
"It's OK to have different opinions and to think about different strategies," Zabel acknowledged. When asked if one of the reasons should he be excluded would be his (unconfirmed) poor team time trial qualities, he said: "At the moment, there are 15 riders on the roster for the Tour, and the management will pick nine of them in June. All I can say is that I tried to help the team as much as I could on the stages [counting for general classification], which is why this questioning isn't very pleasant. Anyhow, I think it's time to put an end to this topic, and further asking about it will only keep it alive," he explained, trying to get out of the line of fire.
"All the riders that had to be satisfied with second and third placings last year have great hopes of being able to score a stage win in 2005. Of course, I'm one of them." - Zabel speaking about Alessandro Petacchi's non-participation at the 2005 Tour
Diverting the conversation on a more fair-play issue such as his Spring race goals, he said, "I hope that I will be able to create perfect conditions for me until Tirreno Adriatico and Milano-San Remo. I want to live up to my responsibilities as a team captain at these races."
Of course, San Remo 2004 still haunted the interview, and he had to relate what happened on that day once more. "I was extremely focused on Petacchi during that finish," he recalled. "As everybody knows, it is very hard or even impossible to beat him, so the moment I did that I just forgot about everything else, including Oscar Freire. The ear plug in my right ear contributed to the fact that I didn't perceive what was happening to my right acoustically, so these two factors made me lose the race. Of course, Freire is a excellent racer who gets faster and faster as the line approaches. I would have preferred if it had happened, say in Valencia or at another race... oh well," he sighed, still living through the disappointment of that defeat.
Asked how much pressure he put on himself for San Remo now, he said, "Actually, it's OK. There were years, especially after my first victory in 1997, where I thought about San Remo during my training rides in the winter; when I had to decide whether I'd ride on the flat or do a climb, I thought to myself, 'This could be a little bit like the Poggio, I'll ride this one again' - I've grown a little more relaxed about that now."
Moving on to Zabel's possible mid-season goals - and assuming T-Mobile management will not leave him behind on its way to Noirmoutier in July - the 34 year-old explained what it takes to win the best sprinter jersey at the Tour. "If you want to win the Green jersey, you may at one point or another during the race decide to make a 'safety sprint'," he revealed.
"You have to have a very broad support in your team, especially regarding the intermediate sprints, and I do have all the experience to know how to win it. Because the green jersey is not about random sprints in the first week of the race; it's the outcome of three weeks' hard work. In the mountains, when you have to sprint before the first Col [mountain-Ed], you're bound to get some problems on the climb afterwards because of that..."
Speaking of sprints and climbs, how does he prepare for the different types of effort, and which goals can sprinters attain? "Actually, there are only two ways of training," he said. "If you focus on strength and speed, the risk is there that you may not be able to pass the mountains because of it, and maybe even fall out of the time limit. The second way consists of trying to use the final speed you have à la Jalabert, to get the most out of endurance training to try to win the big one-day races." Unfortunately, Zabel did not want to share his personal training secret...
Asked if the fact that Alessandro Petacchi's non-participation in the Tour de France has changed anything, he declined. "No, it doesn't. But when the cat is out of the house, the mice dance on the table [a German saying-Ed] - or something like that. It does mean that all the riders that had to be satisfied with second and third placings in the sprints of last year have great hopes of being able to score a stage win in 2005. Of course, I'm one of them."
Zabel is joined this season by another sprinter, coming from Team Gerolsteiner: Olaf Pollack, who is on an altogether different race programme to Zabel. Speaking about his new, slightly younger colleague, the 34 year-old said: "Olaf has a very high final speed, he can be one of the fastest over the last 200 metres. Of course, it is important how he will be supported by the team - if he has to start the sprint in eighth or ninth position, it will diminish his chances of victory. At the Giro last year, he showed that he is one of the top sprinters. On a good day, he could beat everyone."
Finally, Cyclingnews asked him to project himself to the end of this season - what would be the outcome with which he could lean back and say, 'It was a good season'? Zabel smiled, and reluctantly said, "If I could beat Petacchi once more..." then started to laugh. The rider who has won a record amount of Tour de France sprinters' jerseys is a very down-to-earth person after all.